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A teacher’s background – as someone who struggled in school – deepens her connection with alternative education students

I’m a teacher, but I was also “that student”


A teacher’s background – as someone who struggled in school – deepens her connection with alternative education students

This fall, I will return to the classroom for my second year teaching English at Philadelphia’s Excel Academy South, an accelerated high school experience for students seeking a smaller, more personal setting, intensely focused on elevating social skills, emotional wellness, and academic success. 

My colleagues and I are committed to helping students succeed by developing meaningful relationships with each of them, therefore understanding their individual needs, challenges, and strengths. When students feel safe and valued, they become empowered to take charge of their education and future. They begin to fulfill their learning potential. 

It was during my interview with the director and two other administrators at Excel Academy South that I recognized something deeply familiar in so many of their students: It was my younger self. 

Growing up, an unsteady family life meant that I frequently moved from school to school, and such an upbringing left me with no desire to focus on schoolwork, feeling like a failure because I lacked the foundation a consistent education would have given me. In fact, by the time I reached my junior year of high school, I moved from New York to New Jersey and back to New York in a span of only eight weeks.

As someone who already had a strong disdain for school, being told by administrators I would need to repeat 11th grade made me feel absolutely despondent. It also made me do something about it, as there was no way I was staying in school for an additional year.  


In that moment, I began forging my own educational path. I opted to leave the traditional high school setting and registered late for a 12-week program to help prepare me for the General Education Development (GED) Test.  


Despite having only seven weeks to study for the exam, I passed with flying colors. My struggle in school, like many of my own students today, wasn’t about intelligence or knowledge. It was about the outside world. Extenuating circumstances, from an unstable home life to community violence, can impact why attending school regularly is challenging or less of a priority than helping ensure the rent is paid.  


Recounting the circumstantial influences that lead me to be unsuccessful in mainstream education helps me relate to my students as people, and particularly as people who have great potential for success, no matter their background. I frequently share my own story with them to let them know change is indeed possible. Just because they may not be a “good” student today doesn’t mean they cannot be successful in school or any other endeavor. They simply may not have found their best way of learning yet.  

I focus on offering a welcoming, safe, classroom environment because the world outside can be unpredictable and cruel. My room’s vibe at Excel Academy South centers around the growth mindset theory. I explicitly tell my students that it doesn’t matter where they were yesterday, or why they are where they are today. Success is about what they are going to change to “do better” for tomorrow and the day after that, to ultimately get to where they want to be. 

At each step of growth, regardless of where that growth started, it is important to celebrate the progression. We do that out loud in my classroom at our “Wooo Wall,” where, with arms raised in the air (“Wooo!”), I call out successful progressions by students and then write their name and action on a decorative paper cut-out, placing it on the wall for everyone to see (unless they ask me not to–consent is key). These congratulatory gestures can be for anything from perfect attendance for two weeks to starting a new job, as many of our students work while attending school, a college acceptance, or signing a recording deal. A friend of mine used to say, “It’s the little things,” and those little things add together over time to become big things. 


Everyone is capable of learning, though it isn’t one-size-fits-all. When my students find their best learning path and in turn their love for it, I feel great joy, as I’m helping them recognize that English class isn’t as hard as they once believed. Teaching at an accelerated program, I am with my students for 20 weeks and more often than not, I see confidence levels vastly improve during the five months we are together.  

The path for each of us is different and I believe all my students will find success. College may be ideal for some, culinary or cosmetology school for others. Some may need to step away, like I did, and that’s OK, too. They are amazing people who fight against the odds to ensure a brighter future for themselves.  

My goal is for my students to walk away from me feeling like they’ve enjoyed learning something, with the hope that they’ll continue to enjoy learning after they’ve left me.   

I cannot wait for next year. 

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